Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, September 20, 2014

Halloween 2014: September 20

King Kong (1933)

“King Kong” is one of the most iconic films ever created. The idea of a giant gorilla scaling a tall building with a beautiful woman in hand has become one of the most instantly recognizable images in pop culture history. The story – of an expedition to the ominously named Skull Island, of Kong’s fascination with Ann Darrow, of his capture and escape in New York City – are so well-known that there’s no need to summarize it. That’s why people keep trying to reboot the character. Even if the original movie is not that widely watched today, King Kong is still world-famous. Most impressively, Kong is a complete American original, emerging from the mind of Merian C. Cooper.

Part of “King Kong’s” undying appeal lies in the pulpiness of the material. The film is well in line with the rip-roaring adventures that lined the low budget action films and pulp magazines of the day. The characters are in this mold. Carl Denham is the adventurer filmmaker, telling stories of filming charging rhinos and constantly building up his own legend. Jack Driscoll, the heroic lead, is probably the least-well defined character in the film. He’s a tough sailor of few words who survives his encounters with the monsters of Skull Island through his steely determination to survive. Fay Wray’s Ann Darrow has an interesting arc. She is more-or-less living the dream. She was a poor girl scooped out of a woman’s shelter by a big-shot director and sent on a crazy adventure. On that adventure, she meets the man of her dreams in the prototypically heroic Jack. There’s very little reason for Jack and Ann to develop romantic feelings. It’s a plot development born out of the needs of the script. It’s difficult to say that “Kong” intentionally works in archetypes because the film helped defined those archetypes. Even the map that leads the expedition to Skull Island reminds one of legends of mysteriously discovered treasure maps.

The human cast is important but Kong is the star of the show. From the moment he appears, the film’s pace picks up considerably. Even to this day, Kong is an impressive creation. The stop-motion effects are not realistic. To any modern eye, it’s obvious that King Kong and the creatures he fights are models on miniature sets. Who cares. I never been convinced that realism was ever even a goal, as Kong’s eyes are obviously more expressive then a real gorilla’s. Kong is such a personable, beautifully realized character. His eyes, brow, and mouth twitch in excitement, fear, anger, and sadness. The middle section of the story isn’t much from a writing perspective. The movie basically follows Kong and Ann as they encounter one monstrous predator after another, the powerful ape emerging victorious every time. The action scenes are so thrillingly composed that it doesn’t matter. Kong’s battle with the T-Rex is still hypnotic, the gorilla climbing on the dinosaur’s back. They bite and bash at each other until Kong snaps the dinosaur’s jaw in two. In a widely imitated and utterly triumphant moment, he plays with the dead creature’s mouth before beating his chest in victory. The following encounters with the snake-like Elasmosaurus or giant pteradon are no less impressive. Kong may be a simple model but his face and body language is so expressive that his struggles against the bizarre monsters of Skull Island inspire you.

Looking back on it, you might be reluctant to consider “King Kong” a horror film. It probably better belongs to the lost world fantasy or jungle adventure genres. This latest rewatch confirmed to me that “Kong” is indeed a horror film. Take for example the scenes where the sailors are rafting across a foggy lake. Only seen as a black shape, rising out of the water, is a brontosaurus, looking more like a sea serpent then a sauropod dinosaur. The brontosaur wrecks the raft, tossing the men’s bodies through the air. Despite being a plant eater, the dinosaur still chases a man up a tree and eats him. This is dark, violent, thrilling stuff. Kong himself could accurately be described as a monster. He’s certainly a remorseless killer. Most of the expedition crew is taken out when Kong shakes them off a log into a deep canyon. (If the notorious spider pit scene hadn’t been excised, there wouldn’t be any debate about “Kong’s” horror bonafides.) The great gorilla’s rampage through the native village is one of the most thrilling sequences in the film. He stomps on people, crushing them under tossed rubble, chews them up in his mouth. Kong may be the film’s hero in an odd sense but his wanton destruction certainly makes him monstrous.

And as with all classic monsters, Kong is sympathetic too. Later adaptations would play up the gorilla’s connection with Ann as blatantly romantic. Not so much in this version. Ann is nothing but terrified of Kong in the original. The mere sight of him causes her to faint. She spends the entire middle section of the film trying to escape the gorilla. When Kong is captured and brought to New York, all Ann can do is talk about “that awful day on the island.” The film hammers home its theme of the beauty and the beast. Ann is a classical beauty, frail and innocent, and Kong is rather beastly. Yet the gorilla is playful with her. He pulls at her clothes, sniffing his fingers, fascinated by her. Most touchingly, before falling to his death from the Empire States Building, he caresses Ann one more time.

Merian C. Cooper and his co-creators seem to see the film as squarely an action/horror/tragedy. The film is ultimately too important to watch only through these eyes. Through its simple story, “King Kong” tackles numerous, deeper themes. As Tarantino pointed out, Kong is taken from his native land, put in chains, brought across the ocean, and put up on stage for display. Was the film intentionally invoking images of slavery? Is Kong’s rampage through New York a righteous revenge for his capture? Or is it an inflammatory message of letting savages roam around a modern city? The film’s racial context can be hard to read, especially since the Skull Island natives unfortunately fit the then-stereotypes about black people and Africans. I doubt Cooper was intentionally playing with these ideas. However, “Kong” is undoubtedly a story of imperialism and the exploitation of nature by man. Man ventures into a strange world where he doesn’t belong, brings the King of that world back to America, and pays the price for it. This is most notable in the scene where the explorers cruelly shoot an unconscious stegosaurus to death. Because Kong is a tragic figure too, the film becomes about his exploitation as well. Denham is wrong. It wasn’t the airplanes or Beauty that killed the Beast. It was his selfish and thoughtless degradation of an innocent creature that killed Kong.

That’s the great thing about “King Kong.” It is many things at once. We’re expected to feel sorry for the great ape as he thumbs at the gun wounds on his neck and flails to his death. We’re also supposed to be shocked by his destruction of New York. The derailing of the train car or the destruction of the bi-planes are still enormously thrilling sequences. That’s why the movie endures. The images are unforgettable, the base upon which cinematic legends are built, and the ideas stick in your head, evolving in complicated and intriguing directions. Few movies are this fun, thought-provoking, exciting and horrifying. And that’s why “King Kong” is a masterpiece. [9/10]

Dawn of the Dead (2003)

We horror fans were pretty excited when the zombie boom of the early 2000s started. Ironically, zombies have become the horror fad that wouldn’t die. After a decade of diminished returns, the undead sub-genre is in sad shape. George Romero’s original zombie flicks were full of social commentary, when they weren’t outright satirical. Now, the genre is an escapist fantasy for would-be survivalists. I fear most modern zombie nuts would relate far more to the redneck good ol’ boys shooting the undead for fun in the original “Dawn of the Dead” then George himself. Fans like this miss the point. We, the viewers, aren’t Roger and Peter, the bad ass zombie slayers. We, the viewers, are the zombies. I blame video games and “The Walking Dead.” Anyway, I’m rambling. Let’s revisit the remake of “Dawn of the Dead,” the movie that truly launched the zombie boom, in a modern world suffering from both zombie and Zack Snyder fatigue.

Remaking “Dawn of the Dead” was a fairly terrible idea. The original is the high-water mark of the entire genre and has been widely imitated over the years. Smartly, the movie is a fairly loose remake, keeping the zombies, the mall, a few choice lines, and nothing else. The zombie apocalypse strikes and a group of disparate folks make their way to a shopping mall. Once inside, they fight among themselves, find ways to pass the time, and occasionally blast some zombies. In time, they realize sitting around a mall is not surviving and plan an escape into the zombie-infested world.

Former cult filmmaker and now proven blockbuster maker James Gunn penned the script. Time has made it clear that Gunn knows his stuff. At the time, his writing skills were still unproven. Let’s get two facts out of the way: “Dawn of the Dead ‘04” isn’t bad. “Dawn of the Dead ‘04” still has a lot of stupid stuff in it. The stupidest thing? Those fucking running zombies. It trades the slow, shambling dread of the original for shrieking, MTV-style jump scares. The zombies have amber eyes, bust their heads through doors, scream, tumble, and run. It’s obnoxious. Also stupid: The fucking zombie baby. What would happen to a pregnant woman if she got bitten is a question worth answering. Answering it with a screaming, undead infant is not the right answer. The remake also ejects most of Romero’s social commentary and satire, leaving the material bankrupt on anything but the most superficial level.

Also unproven at the time was director and owl enthusiast Zack Snyder. “Dawn of the Dead” is more-or-less Snyder’s entire career in close-up. It’s an intense action movie with some visual panache but is completely dead and soulless inside. Many of the filmmaker’s future Snyder-ism are on display here. His love of ramping, things going real slow and then real fast, is not as oppressive as it would be in the future. It’s still there, mostly employed in close-ups of cocking guns. The color palette is washed-out and grimy yet also slick and commercial. The pounding music goes a long way towards draining tension and foreshadows potential scares. It’s still probably Snyder’s best film, as he even holds off on his juvenile approach to violence, at least until the very end when the chainsaws and the improbable aiming skills come up.

“Dawn of the Dead” also has something lacking in every other Zack Snyder joint: Humor. The remake’s best moments are usually its funniest. Both the original and the remake feature a montage showing the growing ennui of the mall residents. Romero’s version went for drama. Snyder and Gunn’s version goes for laughs. Set to Richard Cheese’s cover of “Down with the Sickness,” the mall dwellers find creative ways to pass the time. Ving Rhames’ cop plays chess with the gun shop owner across the street. The budding teen couple watches old sitcoms together. Most amusingly, the group shoot zombie celebrity look-a-likes. There are a few chuckle-worthy one-liners throughout the film, like one of the guys commenting on the elevator music. Considering everything else Snyder has done has been incredibly self-serious and humorless, I’m willing to give Gunn credit for all the jokes.

The best thing “Dawn of the Dead” has going for it is a fairly likable cast of characters. Ving Rhames gives one of his best performances in recent memory as Kenneth, the hard former cop who slightly rediscovers his will to live. Sarah Polley’s Ana doesn’t have much of an arc but Polley remains a winning screen presence. Ty Burrell’s Steve is probably meant to be an asshole but the actor’s sharp comedic skills make the character memorable. Veteran character actors like Lindy Booth and Matt Frewer do their thing, making bit roles likable. The scene of the cast sitting around and discussing past jobs is one of the most touching in the whole film. It’s impressive that one of the best characters in the movie is almost never heard. That would be Andy, the lovable gun shop owner across the street. The cast is still too large and a number of characters are horribly underwritten. Monica is blonde and slutty, Tucker wears a trucker’s hat, Norma is a lady trucker, and Glen is gay and weird. Considering how little most these characters contribute to the film, they could have been cut without much problem.

The unnecessarily nihilistic ending is a good indicator of the empty heart of “Dawn 2004.” The movie is good for a decent laugh or exploding head. It’s probably the best remake we could have asked for, running zombies and undead newborns aside. Still, I think it speaks volume that, despite launching an unending wave of new zombie films, this remake isn’t talked about much today. Maybe it’s because we’re all sick of Snyder’s tricks now. Or maybe it’s because the remake, for its strength, just doesn’t have much to say. [6/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Loved to Death

I’m being entirely sincere when I say I’ve missed “Tales from the Crypt” in the last ten and a half months. From the fun house opening sequence to the greeting of the Crypt Keeper’s cheesy one-liners, the show hits the horror nerd sweet spot for me. The familiar can be comforting. The show’s scripts always follow familiar story beats, usually involving wrongdoers being punished ironically for their crimes. In “Loved to Death,” a lonely nerd named Edward, an unsuccessful screenwriter, lusts after his statuesque female neighbor. She either ignores him out right or is actively hostile to him. Desperate for her attention, the guy goes to the creepy, voyeuristic landlord who sells him a love potion. As it always does, this backfires spectacularly. Edward learns that you can get too much of a good thing as Miranda’s suddenly smothering affection drives him nuts.

The horrific content in “Loved to Death” is fairly minor. There is some suggestion that the creepy landlord played by David Hemmings might be Satanic in nature. The plot leads to murder, as it so often does in “Tales,” with the would-be killer’s plot backfiring. The too on-the-nose ending has the killer being met in the afterlife by his obsessive lover, who killed herself after he died. Only now, she’s disturbingly needy and brutally deformed. It’s a mean-spirited ending for sure. “Loved to Death” is a weaker episode, probably most of note for its HBO-allowed sexual content. The always game Mariel Hemingway stripes her clothes off and spends most of the half-hour crawling over Andrew McCarthy. As is usually the case with the weaker “Crypt” episodes, the Crypt Keeper’s pun-filled host segments are more entertaining then the episode. [5/10]

So Weird: Medium

Rewatching “So Weird” last year for the first time since it originally aired on the Disney Channel a decade ago, I found I had no memory of some episodes while others stuck with me vividly. “Medium,” the season two premiere, is definitely one I remembered. Its maybe the first time my young brain saw skepticism treated in a positive light. The story begins with Fiona, the paranormal-obsessed teen daughter of on-the-comeback pop star Molly Philips, visiting a spiritualist in hopes of getting in contact with her dead dad. While at the séance, one of the visitors to the circle steps up, revealing the medium as a fraud. Intrigued, Fi tracks down the debunker who turns out to be a real medium, driven to expose the fakes after loosing his own powers.

Like many episodes of “So Weird,” “Medium” has a strong emotional backbone that is hampered by the constraints of half-hour kid’s television. Fiona’s opening monologue expresses skepticism of spiritualism while also saying that it’s natural for those who mourn to want a second chance with their lost loved ones. Fi’s tearful cries for her father during the séance are genuinely touching. The episode ends with a touching conversation between Fi and Molly, where the mother talks about how she still suffers from her late husband’s loss. Cara DeLizia and MacKenzie Philips once again do excellent work.

Unfortunately, “Medium” is rushed in a few ways. Character actor Andrew Wheeler is good as the debunker. However, the character revealing his true powers to Fiona after a few minutes of talking is contrived. Molly’s memories of her husband being illustrated with flashbacks is a clumsy device. Fi’s brother Jack, played by the usually excellent Patrick Levis, has a small role in this episode, with his most interesting actions happening off-screen. Still, “Medium” is a good example of how savvier andmore  mature “So Weird” was compared to the other stuff on the Disney Channel at the time, as the episode packs some strong emotion within its brief framework. [7/10]


Kernunrex said...

I was a wimp as a kid. I remember watching Kong on TV at my grandparent's place. When Kong snaps the poor dino's jaw... ugh... I was done. I fled the room and suffered with that image in my head for days.

whitsbrain said...

I honestly wrote this about three years ago. I am amazed at how close my thoughts at the time come to the ones you've written.

I've never considered it to be horror, but after watching it yet again, it has much more on-screen violence and death than any of the Universal monster movies of it's day.

"It was beauty killed the beast" isn't exactly a major morality play, not that beauty is exactly respected over the course of the movie. Let me quote some of the wonderful statements about women that I noted:

"You're alright [Ann], but women can't help being a bother. They're made that way I guess."

"I've never been on a ship with a woman before. They're a nuisance."

"Do you think I want to haul a woman around? Isn't there any romance or adventure in the world without having a flapper in it?"

Here's a quote I just love because of how dated it is: "Some big hard-boiled egg gets a look at a pretty face and bang, he cracks up and goes sappy."

This movie is over 75 years old but the stop-motion animation looks so damn cool. The way the Kong model moves is just amazing. I also love the closeups of Kong's face. It's a full-size model head and it isn't done in stop-motion. At first it seems odd but the closeups do bring some emotion to Kong. The eyes of Kong are very intense and there's even eyebrow and mouth movements going on that help express Kong's desires.

There's other beasts on Skull Island besides Kong. The crew first encounters a charging Stegosaurus, which they manage to drop with a gas bomb. The Stegosaurus springs back to its feet so they blast it with their rifles. It falls to the ground but as they approach it, Denham notices that its still alive so he shoots it, point-blank in the head. The beast roars and then convulses and finally dies. It's a pretty brutal scene and even though we are talking about a dinosaur, there is no way you could do that in the movies today. Oh sure, you could do it to another human being, but not an animal.

Next, Ann's rescue team has to cross a swamp shrouded in fog. They build a raft and are attacked by an amphibious monster. The plesiosaur chomps a few of the crew members and tosses them like the rag dolls that they are. Then, the moment they exit the swamp, a brontosaurus chases them! One of the men climbs a tree while trying to escape but the big bronto just plucks him right out of it with a mighty chomp. The extended blood-curdling scream of the victim is more movie greatness.

Seconds later, we're already into the legendary "log" scene. This is the point at which Kong rocks a lot of the crew members off of a log that crosses a ravine. They fall and tumble like rag dolls to the ground. When they hit the ravine floor, the way that they impact, bending and twisting; it's brutal and vicious. Kong is enraged and ruthless.

Kong versus T-Rex is a monster battle for the ages. This is also the moment when the audience starts to care about Kong. He's no longer the savage killer but instead is the protector of Ann. When the T-Rex first makes it's appearance, it sees Ann, roars and then stops to scratch itself. Willis O'Brien's realism extends way past just posing the monster models, he also adds traits, behaviors and even involuntary actions into the mix. The Kong versus T-Rex battle is lengthy and it concludes with Kong's jaw-snapping win. I can't even begin to guess how many filmmakers were forever influenced by this great scene. Kong chases Ann and Jack back to the wall, storms the native village and brutally bites, kills and stomps his way to Ann before succumbing to Denham's gas bombs.

whitsbrain said...

The opening scene of "Dawn of the Dead", the "Dawn" I suppose, features a little girl attacking her parents. The neighborhood erupts in chaos shortly thereafter, and I think it bordered on amazing. Once that's done though, the movie predictably turns up the gore and turns down the scares. The next best thing is the home video-like shots of the survivors landing on an island that are mixed in with the closing credits. This movie is better than most current horror fare but it's mostly just a lot of blood and guts.